The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True, p.1Gerald Morris
The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True
The Knight's Tales
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT
BOSTON NEW YORK 2011
Text copyright © 2011 by Gerald Morris
Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Aaron Renier
All rights reserved. For information about permission to
reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Houghton Mifflin is an imprint of
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
The text of this book is set in Post Mediaeval
The illustrations are brush and ink
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Control Number
Manufactured in the United States
DOC 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
FOR JULIAN AND JONTY,
WHO HEARD THIS FIRST.
Sir Gawain the Undefeated
The Green Knight
Spinagras the Dwarf
Sir Gologras the Unconquered
A Fairly Useless Tournament
Sir Gawain the Once Defeated
Sir Bredbaddle the Huntsman
Sir Gawain the True
Sir Gawain the Undefeated
Now, everyone who knows anything at all about knights knows that they used to dress in metal suits and bash each other off their horses with pointy sticks called lances. This only makes sense, of course. Anyone who happened to have a metal suit, a horse, and a pointy stick would do the same.
Some may have also heard that knights fought dragons as well, often to rescue damsels. (Damsels are what they used to call women. Don't ask why; they just did.) This is less sensible, because—Well, really now! What would a dragon want with a damsel? Still, if a dragon did for some reason make off with one, then it would be perfectly reasonable for a knight to rescue her.
But what many do not realize is that, at least in King Arthur's court, knights were also expected to be courteous and respectful. The king was very clear about this: He wanted no bullies at his Round Table. In fact, he said that courtesy was even more important than wearing metal suits and bashing people from horses. Not surprisingly, this notion took a while to sink in. Knights who had spent their whole lives learning swordsmanship and pointy-stick-bashing did not always see how something else could be more important. Indeed, King Arthur had reigned for several years before he felt that his knights were starting to get the idea.
During those early years, the most celebrated of King Arthur's knights was his nephew Sir Gawain. Sir Gawain had won so many tournaments—which is what knights called the contests where they did all that bashing—that he was called Sir Gawain the Undefeated. One day, as Sir Gawain the Undefeated was riding through a forest, he heard a loud scream and a ferocious roar. Sir Gawain urged his horse forward and soon came upon a huge black lizard that was holding a damsel in one scaly, knobby claw.
"Whatever does a dragon want with a damsel?" wondered Sir Gawain. The idea seemed absurd to him as well.
But Sir Gawain did not have time for philosophical questions, because at that moment the dragon roared again, sending a ball of fire into the air, and the damsel screamed. Sir Gawain charged. It was a fierce battle, which took quite a
long time, and an onlooker would doubtless have found it gripping to watch. For some reason, though, secondhand blow-by-blow accounts of battles are not nearly so interesting as the things themselves, so it won't hurt anything to skip ahead here. What matters is that when the fight was over, the dragon lay dead at Sir Gawain's feet.
"Hooray!" shouted Sir Gawain triumphantly. "I won again!"
"Oh, thank you, Sir Knight!" cried the damsel. "You saved my life!"
"Yes, I suppose I did," agreed Sir Gawain. "By the way, do you have any idea why the dragon captured you?"
"What difference does that make?" the damsel treplied. "He was an evil creature."
"Just wondering," Sir Gawain said.
"What matters is that you saved me, Sir Knight," the damsel repeated.
"Not Sir Knight," Sir Gawain corrected. "I'm Sir Gawain. Sir Gawain the Undefeated."
"I'm ever so grateful to you, Sir Gawain."
"Yes, I suppose you are," Sir Gawain replied. He turned back to the dragon's corpse and gazed at it with satisfaction. "It was quite a fight, wasn't it? Did you see how the lizard tried to get behind me but I reversed my lance? A very tricky bit of lancemanship, let me tell you!"
"Er, quite," said the damsel.
"And how, when it shifted to my weak side, I tossed my sword to my left hand? Not everyone can do that, you know."
"Very clever of you, I'm sure." The damsel's smile was smaller now. "Sir Gawain, to thank you for your service, I would like to give you a gift: this green sash." The woman began to remove a gleaming strip of green silk from her waist. "Wear this as a reminder of your victory, and—"
"Oh, I shan't forget this victory," Sir Gawain said.
"But this is a special sash. As long as you wear it—"
"I really don't have a place for a sash," Sir Gawain said. "Why don't you keep it?"
"Oh," the damsel said. "Well ... if you wish. But I want to thank you somehow. Perhaps it would be enough if I gave you a kiss on the cheek, just to—"
"I say!" interrupted Sir Gawain. "You don't think that just because I saved your life we're, you know, in love or something, do you?"
"Because a lot of girls might think that, but really I would have saved any damsel. It didn't have to be you. Besides, I'm not looking for a lady of my own right now."
"A lady of your own?" gasped the damsel. "I never said—"
"Nothing personal, of course," Sir Gawain said hurriedly. "I'm sure you'll make a very nice lady for someone someday. It's just that I'm not in the market for romance at the moment."
"Of all the ... All I wanted to do was show you my gratitude!"
Suddenly remembering King Arthur's lectures on courtesy, Sir Gawain bowed and said, "You're very welcome," then turned his horse and rode away. He was already thinking about how he would tell the tale of his great victory once he got back to the Round Table.
The story was a success. Sir Gawain held the court spellbound as he recounted his defeat of the horrible dragon, even during the duller bits when he described his lancemanship. But when he told about
"Do you mean to say, Gawain," the king asked, "that the lady tried to give you a token of thanks and you refused it?"
"So then she asked if she could give you one kiss on the cheek, and you turned that down as well?"
"I didn't want her to get the wrong idea, you see."
"And I gather that you told her your name but never asked for hers?"
Sir Gawain blinked. The king was right. He had no idea who the lady was.
"And then," King Arthur concluded, "you rode away, leaving her alone, on foot, in the forest?"
For a moment, Sir Gawain was silent. "I didn't think about that," he admitted, frowning. "That wasn't ... wasn't my best choice, was it?"
King Arthur shook his head.
"I did say 'You're welcome,'" Sir Gawain said. "'Very welcome,' I think."
King Arthur covered his eyes with his hands. Sometimes in those early days he wondered what it would take to prove to his knights that courtesy was as important as courage.
The Green Knight
Several months after Sir Gawain the Undefeated overcame the dragon, the knight faced a new and very different sort of challenge. It happened at King Arthur's Christmas feast.
Now, there may be some who think they've been to Christmas feasts, but the truth is that unless they've been to one of King Arthur's feasts, they really don't know what they're talking about. Never before or since have there been grander yuletide banquets. King Arthur's feasts lasted for seven days—from Christmas right up to New Year's—and every evening was more magnificent than the evening before. There were so many luscious foods at his feasts that it would be cruel to describe them. King Arthur's cooks were like kitchen magicians. It is said that Brussels sprouts prepared by King Arthur's chefs tasted better than custard pies prepared by anyone else.
Their recipe for Brussels sprouts has, alas, been lost.
But the feast was more than just the food. Every evening there was a different entertainment for the court, each astounding in its own way. One night, the lightest and most agile acrobats ever seen flipped themselves and tossed each other about the banquet hall with uncanny ease. Another evening, a French musician sang ballads of romance, and so touching was his performance that everyone at court fell in love with someone for as long as the music lasted. (Don't worry; they all got better afterward.) There were side-splittingly funny jesters and grippingly suspenseful storytellers, and on the last night of the feast there performed a famous juggler named Launfal the Light-fingered who was so deft that he could juggle five sleeping cats without waking even one.
It was during Launfal's act that adventure arrived at Camelot. Just as the juggler launched the cats, there came a scream from the kitchen, followed a second later by a deafening crash of breaking dishes. Then the kitchen doors burst open, and into the banquet hall rode a huge knight on a monstrous steed, and both horse and rider were as green as the grass in May.
Ladies screamed and knights leaped to their feet, grabbing for their weapons, which they didn't
actually have, since one doesn't generally arm oneself for a Christmas feast. Launfal the Light-fingered's cats awoke with a chorus of angry squalls and began grabbing with their claws at anything that was near, which was mostly Launfal. The Green Knight stopped in front of King Arthur's table, his fierce eyes gazing, unblinking, about the room. He took a breath and opened his mouth to speak.
"Please excuse me," he said. "I didn't mean to cause such a stir. Am I interrupting?"
"Er, yes," replied the king, rising to his feet, "I suppose you are, a bit. This is our Christmas feast."
"A thousand pardons," said the Green Knight, "but I was looking for King Arthur."
"I am King Arthur."
"Excellent!" the Green Knight exclaimed, dismounting. "I've come to bring you some entertainment."
"Well," said the king, "as it happens, when you arrived we were watching this juggler."
"What, that fellow with the cats in his hair? That's what you call entertainment? It's a good thing I came when I did. I bring a merry little game to amuse—"
But the Green Knight got no further. At that moment rose one of King Arthur's knights, a skilled fighter who had never been overcome by any knight except Sir Gawain and who was called Sir Gandefere the Nearly Undefeated. Sir Gandefere broke abruptly into the conversation, shouting, "Who do you think you are? You can't just barge into the king's feast like this!" Walking around his table, Sir Gandefere stepped bravely up to the Green Knight. "Why don't you go back where you—?"
Sighing softly, the Green Knight brought his fist down on Sir Gandefere's head, like a hammer. Sir Gandefere crumpled to the floor. The Green Knight said, "Your knights are very brave, O king. But it's rude to speak when someone else is talking, you know. As I was saying, I bring a game, a test of knightly arts. Is there a knight here who would take on a little challenge?"
At once, two knights leaped to their feet: Sir Reynold the Brave and Sir Gawain the Undefeated. "Sire!" they called at once. "Let me! Let me!"
The Green Knight looked at them. "And what are your names, O knights?"
Sir Reynold and Sir Gawain told the Green Knight their names and titles.
The uncanny visitor smiled, showing gleaming light green teeth. "Sir Gawain the Undefeated! Excellent!" he said. "I have heard of you. They say that you can stand before any knight and match him blow for blow."
"So can I!" said Sir Reynold.
"I do my best," murmured Sir Gawain, trying to look modest.
The Green Knight didn't even look at Sir Reynold. "Then you are perfect for my game, Sir Gawain, because that's all you have to do."
"I beg your pardon?" asked Sir Gawain.
"Trade blows," explained the Green Knight. "First you strike me; then I strike you."
Sir Gawain hesitated, glancing at the senseless form of Sir Gandefere lying at the knight's feet.
"Gawain," said King Arthur, "perhaps it would be best not to play this particular game."
"Then let me!" begged Sir Reynold.
"I'm not afraid," announced Sir Gawain. "I've never turned down a challenge, and I won't begin now! I'll play this game with you. I swear it!"
King Arthur frowned, but the strange knight only showed his green smile again. "Then we're agreed," he said. With that he reached behind him and drew a long, wicked axe from his horse's saddle.
"Um, with an axe?" asked Sir Gawain.
"You promised," the Green Knight reminded him, handing him the weapon and kneeling at his feet. "Go on, then. Right on the neck."
Sir Gawain didn't move. "It's just that I was thinking of something less drastic. You know, fisticuffs."
"Do King Arthur's knights keep their vows or not?" the Green Knight demanded.
"I would!" said Sir Reynold, under his breath.
Sir Gawain sighed, then said, "Right, then. Sorry about this." With a single swift blow, he drove the axe blade down, cutting the Green Knight's head neatly from his shoulders.
Most of the knights and ladies looked away from the sprawled, headless body. King Arthur shook his head slowly. "And he called this a game?" he muttered.
"Odd sort of game," Sir Gawain agreed. "I didn't have any fun at all, and as for this fellow, I can't imagine that he enjoyed himself any more than..."
Sir Gawain trailed off. At his feet, the Green Knight's body had begun to move. It pushed itself up with its arms, then groped about until it located its detached head. Then, head in hands, the green body rose to its feet. The head's eyes flickered open, and it grinned its green smile.
"Well struck, Sir Gawain," said the head. "Now I get a turn. But no hurry. Shall we say one year from tonight? Next New Year's Day, you meet me at my home. It's called the Green Chapel, and you should have no trouble finding it."
With that, the Green Knight took his axe from Sir Gawain, leaped into his horse's saddle, and rode from the court.
Spinagras the Dwarf
After the Green Knight had gone, the knights and ladies of the court agreed that their New Year's visitor had been a sorcerer. Who but a powerful enchanter could ride away with his head tucked under one arm? Privately, the knights and ladies agreed on something else, too: Sir Gawain, who was not a sorcerer and was not able to get about with a separated head, was doomed. Consequently, there was great sadness at Camelot.
This sadness included Sir Gawain, of course. He knew better than anyone that when the Green Knight struck his neck, he would not survive. He considered not going to the Green Chapel at all, but only for a moment. He had taken a vow, after all, and Sir Gawain always kept his vows. But he did spend a good deal of time wondering why he had taken such a foolish vow to begin with. For the first time in his life, Sir Gawain wondered if living up to his reputation as "Sir Gawain the Undefeated" was as important as he'd thought.
Only King Arthur refused to give up hope. If one enchanter could survive beheading, then perhaps another enchanter could help Sir Gawain do the same. "We will seek help from Merlin!" he announced. Merlin was the powerful enchanter who had helped Arthur become king.
"But Merlin left England after you were crowned," Gawain pointed out.
"So he did," the king conceded. "But you never can tell about sorcerers. I haven't said anything to the court, but in recent months reports have come of a powerful enchanter living in the north. Perhaps this is Merlin himself, returned to England. I will go at once to seek his counsel. Who will go with me?"
All the knights of the Round Table said that they would go, and so it was that two days later, the king and his knights set out on the Great North Road. The sky was heavy and gray when the party left, and it grew darker each day they traveled, but the king refused to let the threatening snow delay their journey. When the snow started on the fourth day, though, he began to wonder if he'd been entirely wise. It fell so thickly that the knights could hardly see their hands before their faces. Soon the party was hopelessly lost. The king called for all to dismount and tie ropes between them so that no one got separated
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